SERIES INFO: This series of blog articles will include topics (and bonus sections) I couldn't fit into my book Reintroducing Jesus: Uncovering Jesus of Nazareth in the Misinformation Age.
As we covered in Reintroducing Jesus, when reading ancient biographies, like the Gospels, we find:
Telescoping (Extending or Compressing)
Now, armed with this understanding of ancient biographical writing conventions, we’ll place the events surrounding the women and the empty tomb in chronological order.
MAKING SENSE OF MATTHEW’S ACCOUNT
Selective Chronology doesn’t really come into play with the accounts of the women and the empty tomb with the exception of — possibly — Matthew’s Gospel. This isn’t surprising since Matthew is the Gospel writer who most arranges things thematically and the one who regularly gives condensed versions (using shortcuts) that read very differently than the other Gospels’ accounts. Admittedly, I find Matthew's account the hardest to synchronize with the other Gospels.
When you read it, it’s easy to visualize what Matthew writes as unfolding as follows:
(1) Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb,
(2) an earthquake happens,
(3) an angel descends, rolls back the stone covering the tomb’s entrance and sits on it.
(4) The guards pass out.
(5) Still sitting on the stone, the angel speaks to the women.
But I don’t think this is the chronological order of these events. Is Matthew using “creative license” here with chronology? The other accounts make no mention of the earthquake, the angel’s descent, and the actual rolling away of the stone. Matthew is the only one to mention these events, and it makes sense that they would have happened before the women arrived because the other accounts report the women find the stone already rolled away upon arrival (and they encounter the angle inside the tomb).
I think the description of the angel rolling back the stone and the guards fainting is a flashback to what happened before the women arrived. I believe it’s acceptable to read Matthew’s account as:
(1) An earthquake occurred,
(2) an angel descended, rolls back the stone covering the tomb’s entrance and sits on it.
(3) The guards pass out.
(4) Later, the women arrive (the guards have likely awoken and run off by now), and the women find the empty, open tomb.
(5) The angel (no longer on the stone) speaks to the women inside the tomb.
Thus, the earthquake, the angel’s descent, and the guards’ falling into unconsciousness is a flashback sandwiched between the women going to the tomb and the angel speaks to them. So, Matthew can be understood as follows:
Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. And behold, [earlier] there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. But [when they arrived] the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen… (Matthew 28:1–6)
After looking at the other Gospel accounts, we see that Matthew drastically condensed his account, taking many shortcuts in his retelling, but giving the key elements. Because of Matthew’s “shortcuts,” it’s easy to visualize his account differently had we not had the other accounts to compare it to.
HARMONIZING THE RESURRECTION ACCOUNTS
But big differences just don’t appear in Matthew. Understanding the ancient (and non-ancient) writing conventions we looked at in Reintroducing Jesus will now continue to assist us as we put the pieces of the four Gospels together to get a complete picture of the events surrounding the finding of the empty tomb.
Based on a careful reading of all four Gospels, I believe the events played out in the following way:
An earthquake occurs, the angel descends and rolls back the stone before the tomb’s entrance and sits on it, and the guards “become like dead men.” (Matthew 28:2-4)
Sometime later, around dawn, Mary Magdalene and other women go to the tomb. (Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1-3, Luke 23:55-24:1, John 20:1)
Selective Representation – John only mentions Mary Magdalene and the other writers mention select women with her.
Mary Magdalene and the other women find the stone rolled away from the tomb’s entrance and the tomb empty. (Mark 16:4, Luke 24:2, John 20:1)
Mary Magdalene splits from the other women and runs to tell Peter and John. (John 20:2)
(We’ll pick back on Mary Magdalene’s path below…)
The remaining women enter the tomb. (Mark 16:5-6, Luke 24:3)
No specific women are named here — just a general reference to the women entering the tomb. Because of this, it’s easy to imagine Mary Magdalene still with them when we read Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but we know from John’s Gospel she has run off.
The women see at least two angels in the tomb.
Selective Representation – Luke 24:4 mentions two angels, where Mark 16:5 and Matthew 28:5 mention one, likely the one speaking.
The women are told Jesus is risen (Matthew 28:5-6, Mark 16:6, Luke 24:5-7)
If we only had Matthew’s account, we can imagine the conversation taking place outside the tomb. Matthew’s condensed version leaves out the details of them entering the tomb.
The women are told to go tell the disciples (Matthew 28:7, Mark 16:7, Luke 24:8-10).
A CHALLENGE IN MARK’S ACCOUNT
After this, both Matthew and Luke tell us the women go and tell the disciples, but Mark seems to make a big issue for us: Mark tells us the women flee the tomb in fear and tell no one! This is where his Gospel ends. How do we rectify this?
One common way, which I’ve encountered many times, is to say that the women at first didn’t tell anyone, yet we know from the witness of the other Gospels that they eventually did. It’s often said that Mark chose to end his Gospel at this moment to emphasize what Christians are not to do. Christians are not to “keep it to themselves,” but share the good news of Jesus Christ. I’ll let you decide if this is a reasonable solution to Mark’s ending, but based on what we talked about concerning ancient writing, I think we have another option.
I believe it’s possible that Mark is using Selective Representation. So, just like we had a person split off from the group when Mary Magdalene ran off after seeing the open tomb, here we have another split in the group of women. Some of the women listened to the angel and ran off to tell the disciples where another group ran off and didn’t tell anyone. Mark is only focusing on those women who didn’t tell.
After all, Matthew tells us the women left the tomb with both “fear and great joy” [emphasis mine]. Are both groups of women in sight here in Matthew?
Luke gives us a general statement about “Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them” telling the disciples, the same women named at the beginning of his account. Salmone is the only woman named in the Gospels (in Mark) but not named here in Luke. Was she one of the unnamed “other women” in Luke or was she one of Mark's women who didn’t tell anyone about Jesus’ empty tomb? Mark is the only one to name Salmone, and Mark is the only one to include that (some of) the women didn’t tell anyone.
So, to continue our timeline:
Group A runs off and tells no one. (Mark 16:8)
Group B runs off to tell the disciples and meets the risen Jesus. (Matthew 28:8-10)
Group B tells the disciples all they experienced, but the disciples doubt it. (Luke 24:10-11)
Luke 24:10-11 includes Mary Magdalene here. We can assume the other women join back with her when they return to the disciples. Even if that’s not the case, this is just a general statement by Luke about who told the disciples about the risen Jesus. Mary Magdalene could have told the disciples separately from the other women.
JOHN’S GOSPEL & MARY MAGDALENE
Backing up in time a bit and returning to Mary Magdalene’s path and John’s Gospel:
After Mary Magdalene leaves the other women at the open tomb, she runs to tell Peter and John. (John 20:2)
*IMPORTANT DETAIL TO NOTE: Mary says to Peter and John, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him” (John 20:2). So, John does testify to Mary NOT being alone when she found the tomb empty, despite John not mentioning the other women.
Peter and John run to the tomb and find Jesus’ body missing and burial clothes laying inside. (John 20:3-9)
Selective Representation – Luke only mentions Peter. (Luke 24:12)
Peter and John head back home. (John 20:10)
Selective Representation – Again, Luke only mentions Peter. (Luke 24:12)
Mary weeps at the tomb. She has either arrived after Peter and John left (since they literally ran there – John 20:4-6) or she arrived while they were still there and remained after they headed back. (John 20:11)
Mary looks inside the tomb and sees two angels, who speak to her. (John 20:11-13)
She turns and encounters the resurrected Jesus. (John 20:14-17)
Mary goes and tells the disciples she has seen the risen Jesus. (John 20:18, Luke 24:10)
There’s room for other interpretations within my timeline of these events, but I think this is a plausible option for harmonizing the four accounts of the women finding the empty tomb of Jesus and — more importantly — encountering the risen Lord himself!